Chelsea Borsack was walking around the streets of Oswego, camera in hand, looking for people to photograph.
She was a student at a summer art school, and her photography assignment was to compile portraits of local people that would emit the atmosphere of the “quirky” upstate town.
The only problem was that the 5-foot-tall Long Islander wearing preppy clothes, lace-up sandals and pearl earrings was feeling intimidated.
“I must have passed 20 people I would have loved to shoot but I was too afraid to ask them,” she said. “It’s a very quirky city and even the women seemed to be a little rough around the edges.”
But she found her courage and eventually approached a man standing near his motorcycle. He was smoking a cigarette, wore gauges in his ears and had sticks though some of his piercings. Borsack asked him if he would mind posing for her project and he was delighted.
“That was really fun,” she said, and as she moved about town she found that her subjects were disappointed if she only took one shot. “They’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s it? I’m willing to stand for more.’”
The 17-year-old’s willingness to push the boundaries of her comfort zone is one of the reasons she was chosen as a national Portfolio Gold Medalist in the 2012 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, which comes with a $10,000 cash scholarship.
Borsack had submitted an eight-piece portfolio under the guidance of her Oceanside High School photography teacher Nanci Nigro. Each piece was a diptych, two images positioned adjacently in one frame. In Borsack’s project, one was a portrait -- which she said is her niche -- and the other was an inanimate object or place that emotes the same feeling.
Virginia McEnerney, executive director of the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers, a nonprofit that administers the awards, said the judges were impressed with Borsack’s ability to move out of her self-declared specialty, and her work made them curious about what she was trying to say.
“The images really spoke to them,” she said. “And I think because she wanted to do something original and try something new, that’s what they responded to.”
McEnerney said the Scholastic awards are the country’s longest running recognition program for creative teens. It was established in 1923 and past recipients include Andy Warhol, Richard Avedon and Zac Posen.
This year, there were more than 200,000 submissions and 15 scholarships were given out. The scholarship recipients are also eligible for up to $5 million from more than 60 colleges, universities and art institutes.
Borsack said the most important part about the award was the recognition.
“A lot of people think I’d be very excited about the money or the award or the title,” she said. “It’s more about how it’s given me a validation of my work and proven to me that someone else is recognizing it on this level, it’s really going to push me to pursue it.”